Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Endorsing Candidates from the Pulpit

According to tax law, political endorsements by non-profit religious organizations can result in forfeiture of the organization’s tax-exempt status. The issue itself is pretty cut and dry. Recently, pastors across America decided to classify this law as an infringement on religious liberty and began to challenge the constitutionality of the law by stating which candidate they will vote for from the pulpit and even telling congregants which candidate should receive their vote. This behavior raises a number of issues, not the least of which concerns the duty of clergy to their congregants in terms of applying the Christian ethic to the voting process. However, this behavior raises another very interesting question. Is it an infringement on religious liberty remove the tax-exempt status of a church because they are engaging in political endorsements?

The argument looks this: 1) Christians must endorse political candidates in order to practice their religion. 2) The IRS will not grant tax-exempt status to any organization that publicly endorses a political candidate. 3) Therefore, the IRS is infringing on my religious freedom and it is in violation of the constitution.

The argument is logically valid, but is it true? In order for the argument to be true, the premises upon which the conclusion rests must both be true. With this in mind, we begin by examining the first premise. Is it true that Christians must endorse political candidates? A good way to examine this question is to reverse the concept. Can a Christian avoid endorsing any political candidate without compromising their status as a Christian? In other words, is it a sin to avoid endorsing a particular politician? Asked differently, is there a divine imperative anywhere in Scripture that instructs Christians to endorse a specific political candidate? In order for the major premise of this argument to be true, there must be a divine imperative ordering Christians, if they wish to practice the Christian religion accurately, to endorse a specific political candidate. Does such an imperative exist in Scripture? Since the cultures of Scripture knew nothing about the modern, western political process, the answer must be that Scripture contains no divine imperative either explicit or implicit that requires Christians to endorse a specific political candidate.

Another component of this argument concerns free speech law. The rebuttal might be that even if it is not an infringement on religious liberty, it most certainly is an infringement on free speech. The issue is tax-exempt status. If any 501 (c) (3) organization engages in specific political endorsements, they will lose their tax exempt status. The potential for corruption in this matter is very large. To argue that this is a free speech issue is a misnomer in my opinion. The reason it is not an infringement on free speech is because you are not jailed or fined in any way. You may engage in endorsements of specific candidates, but you will be taxed like everyone else who does that. That tax-exempt privilege is just that; it is a privilege. It is reserved for organizations who engage in very specific activities. If you engage in these activities, and only these activities, the IRS will donate to your cause by not taxing you. To look at it any other way is a wrong-headed way of looking at it.

Now we turn to the second point of this argument. That point is that the IRS is violating the constitution by refusing to grant tax exempt status to religious organizations if they engage in actively endorsing political candidates. First of all, the IRS isn’t targeting religious organizations. It is seeking to eliminate fraud and corruption. The IRS does not want political machines creating pseudo charity organizations that are really a front for politics, power, and all the corruption that goes with it. Second, the church has somehow adopted the mentality that she has the “right” to a tax-exempt status or she is being persecuted if such a status is not granted. The tax exempt status is a way to encourage charitable giving to organizations that are involved in a plethora of humanitarian causes. The church may use her free speech protection to make numerous statements about the moral implications of certain political platforms, candidate’s viewpoints, etc. Leaders can easily guide their communities through the evils or the good that certain views endorse. However, to argue that the church must be free to publically endorse one candidate over another is a perfect way for the culture to respond by removing the idea of religious organizations from the 501(c) (3) tax exempt status they currently enjoy.

When the world sees the church engaging in this kind of behavior, they do not see Christ nor do they hear the life-changing gospel. They see a community of religious people that want to use their special status to gain power in order to create a society that is under their moral thumb, so to speak. They see oppression and their own freedom’s being taken from them. While many in the church naively think they are being persecuted for righteousness sake, the truth is they are not. They really are no different from a communist dictator who decides for the rest of society how they may carry on their lives. This is the perception the church creates when she engages in this wrong-headed idea.

I fully understand the passion of these pastors who desperately want cure society of its moral decadence. I would love to see an end to all abortion everywhere. I would love to protect the institution of marriage. I would like to see an end to human trafficking. Where do we stop? When you impose Christian morality on society and attempt to legislate it, where do you stop? Murderers are sent to prison. Hence, anyone having an abortion would go to jail. We would also imprison human traffickers. What would we do with homosexual behavior? Would that carry a fine? Would we outlaw divorce except in cases of adultery and abandonment? What would we do with adulterers?

It has never been the mission of the church to shape a culture or society by legislating it’s moral code into law. All the attention the church gives to electing the “right person” to office so that her own values can be preserved within a culture is misguided. The Christian community needs to focus on the values of the people within her own community. For those who profess to know Christ, and are liars because they refuse to keep His commandments, the community needs to address through discipleship and discipline. For those on the outside, in the surrounding communities, the church must display Christ’s values as the light she is, and preach the gospel to every creature as faithfully as she can. The mission of pastors is clearly spelled out in Scripture.

There is this supposed “culture war” that is going on presently. Many leading evangelicals are concerned that the church is losing the “culture war” to secularism. These are outsiders to the Christian group. They should not be expected to live their life by Christian values. When will the Church learn that it is a false expectation to think that the culture should reflect Christ-like values? The world is not able, nor is it willing, to adopt Christian values. Read the New Testament text and you will not see this idea anywhere. They are unbelievers who reject God in a variety of ways. Roman 1 is clear about this. In fact, it could not be any clearer. Unregenerate human beings hate God and are His sworn enemy. They consistently shape God into a god they can live with or no god at all, replacing him with their own substitute, whether it is science or human reason. The business of pastors is not politics. It is leading the Christian group into disciple making, evangelism, and living a very distinct set of values that it inherited from it’s founder, who is God of very God!




1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the church (or some church organizations) should look into becoming taxed entities and express a biblical perspective of legislation and candidates.

    From the Government's perspective they pay the churches (through not-taxing them) to stay out of politics.

    This started with LBJ who feared the churches influence and essentially stifled their free speech by adding the neutrality caveat to tax-exempt non-profits. (circa 1954)

    I say some churches need to step up, pay Caesar and speak freely.


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